While I highly admire young Muslims who are enthusiastic enough to organise Islamic Society (ISOC) events, I feel that sometimes their lack of familiarity with the cultural mosaic that is Islam leads to them being somewhat cliched in their preferences. They go for the most visible Islam without the awareness that perhaps there are a diverse set of Islams out there. This is of course not a bad thing in itself but perhaps a little look around would have helped them come up with a better alternative. This particular event on the miracle of the Qur’an was organised by King’s College ISOC for their ‘Discover Islam Week’.
My first qualm with the whole proceeding is that, while the Qur’an was prominently featured as well as it should have been (given the title of the presentation!), not a single time were any references given to the passages quoted! Not once. No chapter names or numbers nor verse numbers. The talk began appropriately enough with a recitation of the Qur’an. I’m not quite sure why that particular passage – the one on Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus – was read but given the interpolations in the translation (inserting words like ‘Christians’) one could guess that the reading was aimed at the Christians in the audience. Whatever the case, at least some reference should been given. After all, it is the Qur’an which tells us to be investigative in the information we encounter.
The presenter, Saleem Chagtai, is from the Islamic Research and Education Academy. An amiable, jovial person, I liked him from the start and one could immediately see his passion for Islam and for the Qur’an. He emphasised that mankind has always asked the three fundamental questions:
- Where do we come from?
- Why are we here?
- Where are we going?
I thought it was an excellent start given that many members of the audience were from other backgrounds. These questions pertain to us all as human beings.
Saleem then went into the standard account of the Qur’an’s descent. How the Prophet was meditating in the cave of Hira, how Jibreel came to him and made him recite the first passage.The Prophet then began reciting the Qur’an to the Meccans who were famed for their love of poetry. Their very own poets were awestruck by the extreme eloquence of the Qur’an and were unable to respond and ‘produce a sura like it’.
Is this really what the Qur’an’s miracle is all about? I personally find this rather difficult owing to its theological considerations. How does this make the Qur’an an ever-living miracle? No one but Arabs can appreciate it then!
I feel that this jahiliya myth somewhat denigrates the Qur’an to the status of the best of poetry but poetry nonetheless. To be an ever-living miracle, the Qur’an must speak for ever-living needs. Let us look to the Qur’an itself for answers about inimitability. Chapter 10 Verses 35-38 for example links the production of the ‘sura like it’ with the Qur’an’s capacity for guidance (is there one more capable than God for guidance, it asks). This to me is what inimitability and irreproducibility is about.
Saleem then described how the Qur’an was a complete code of conduct for all mankind. How it respects the rights of people to live their own lives. I agree with this but I thought it was vital for Saleem to handle issues pertaining to this. The issue of apostasy for example, where the blatant freedom the Qur’an affords is flagrantly rejected by the more fundamentalist elements of the classical jurists, should have been dealt with. Given the availability of information (or propaganda as the case may be) we may access today, most people would be aware of this heinous apostasy law.
The Q&A had probably the most shocking moment of the entire event. The presenter was asked whether or not it was enough being a good person; that one did not have to become Muslim to be saved. I was shocked when I heard that yes, only by becoming Muslim can one be saved. Everything else is subjective, the presented pointed out, being ‘good’ included. What about our subjectivity in interpreting Islam, I wonder? There is a multiplicity of Islams, let’s not forget.
I was not too happy about that and raised the point of religious plurality in the Quran.To my surprise, I was told that this verse was for the people of the time of the Prophet and did not refer to present time (which neither the verse nor its context stipulates). How is this possible when only 45 minutes earlier, in the very same presentation, we were told that the Qur’an contains the code of life for all time. Some obscure exegetical reference was quoted at me but unfortunately, I can only accept what the verse says and it is very clear: whoever believes in God , the last Day and is righteous will have his reward. Another member of the audience even told me gently that this verse is abrogated but our presenter disagreed with that. In any case, this, to me, was the disappointment of evening.
I truly appreciate the efforts of our Muslim youth for putting together events such as these and speakers for taking the time to come to speak to the public and inform them about Islam. However, I must question this unending repetition of Islamic history. Was the Qur’an the greatest poetry? That was its miracle? What about now? What about its philosophy and outlook on life. The concept of God I agree is peerless but what about its outlook on society?
In Islam the only way to salvation? The Qur’an (unless abrogated) doesn’t seem to think so. It paints a very pluralistic outlook yet this is simply dismissed. Perhaps we need to rethink our own outlook on Islam?
- Chapter17, Verse 36
- Chapter 96 Verses 1-5
- Repeated three times , no less. In Ch 2, Vs 62, Ch 5, Vs 69 and Ch 22, Vs 17.
Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.